My husband and I went cross-country skiing the other day while the snow was falling lightly and the green conifers were slowly fading into the background of white. All was silent. In fact, we only heard one bird chirruping during the entire 3.9 mile journey. But we did see signs of birds. I always look for tracks in the snow when I’m skiing; deer being the most common, but the best ‘signs’ are left by birds. Wing prints in the snow for me are a form of art – temporary and cryptic, but beautiful just the same. They are not common either, which makes them extra fun to find.
Prints left by an owl trying to catch a hidden rodent. No guarantee of success.
The ones we saw were on the edge of the road. They were probably made by crows or ravens who frequent this rural route and roost in the tall pines nearby. The primary feathers leave the imprint – a row of parallel, long wavy ‘fingers’. Sometimes there are two; sometimes there is only one wing print. These could be made as the bird lands, but more likely when they take off and must push downward with their wings. It is like finding petroglyphs, stories that are impossible to interpret, though that doesn’t keep me from speculating as I look at the direction of the tracks (feet) as they move away from the wing prints.
Ruffed Grouse will make similar imprints in the snow as they shoot out of their snow shelters. And owls make the best impressions of all, though they are rare and difficult to find. When an owl lands in the snow, it is generally coming down to grab a prey animal (rodent usually). Its wings will spread out on either side as it balances itself and thrusts its taloned feet into the blanket of snow. Imagine being able to hear the squeaks of a mouse or other rodent under several inches of snow. This is how the owl finds its prey, but success is not guaranteed.
When they come down their body makes a large impression in the snow and if you find a splotch of blood in this hole, then you know they were successful. Sometimes the bird will transfer its catch to its beak, but other times it will continue to hold it in its feet. Next it must find a safe place in the trees to consume its meal. The wings, in order to grab enough air, must rise up and often hit the snow as the bird jumps into the air.
Northern Hawk Owl
And speaking of owls, I must mention the wonderful sighting we had one year in northern Minnesota, just south of the Canadian border. We had driven out of blizzard conditions into sunshine and on the right side of the road, sitting at the top of a birch tree, Mike’s eye caught the tell tale shape of a small owl. It was a Northern hawk-owl, a species that is seen only occasionally in the winter months in northern Minnesota. It gets part of its name from the longer tail, which gives it a slight appearance of a small hawk. We made a U turn and drove back past the bird, then turned again and slowly drove up until we were parked right next to it. Since these owls come from a part of the world, (boreal forests and northern muskegs of Canada) they are not used to seeing humans and exhibit less fear as a result. In fact, this one stared hard at us with its yellow eyes, while we stared back at it with our binoculars.
Sitting on that high perch is the owl’s way of keeping an eye out for food. They will move from tree top to tree top trying to locate a rodent of some sort on the ground or a small bird in flight. They hunt most often in the daylight hours. While it is not easy or common to see owls in our yards, if you are putting out bird seed, you know some spills on the ground and this will attract rodents over time. Unlike the Hawk-owl, most owls hunt at night, so you may be inadvertently helping to feed these raptors too, which in turn helps keep the rodent population in check.
By Kate Crowley